The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Barack Obama and Kamala Harris both identify as Black. The news media doesn’t describe both that way.

Harris is much more likely to be described as multiracial.

Sen. Kamala Harris, center, attends a Corinthian Baptist Church service on Aug. 11, 2019, in Des Moines. (John Locher/AP)

Hundreds of articles have been published about Sen. Kamala D. Harris and her historic nomination in the month since she was announced as Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s running mate.

As the first Black man and woman to run on a major party ticket, former president Barack Obama and Harris are often compared. She has even been described as the “female” Barack Obama.

However, although both Obama and Harris are multiracial and have publicly identified as Black, the news media portrays Harris’s ethnicity much differently from Obama’s.

Here is how, and why this could matter for the Democratic Party’s coalition.

How we did our research

We used the Access World News Research Collection, a database that collects newspaper articles from thousands of U.S. and international news sources, to gather media coverage of Barack Obama and Kamala Harris during their campaigns in 2007-2008 and 2019-2020.

To compare how the media discussed their racial identities, we limited our search to articles that mentioned either candidate in the headline and also specifically mentioned the terms “Black” or “African American” in the text. Altogether, we examined 1,047 articles about Obama and 423 about Harris.

Why NFL owners are supporting Black players' protests -- for now

What differences we found

Although Obama and Harris have both primarily described themselves as Black, the media has portrayed their identities in different ways.

Obama is described solely as Black in almost half (49 percent) of 1,047 articles. One example is a Nov. 30, 2008, story from the Hoosier Times that said “a black man had been elected to the presidency of the United States of America.” Another post-election story, from a newspaper in Marysville, Calif., referred to Obama as a “black man named Barack Hussein Obama.”

In the other half of the articles, he is described as biracial. He is “the son of a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas,” for example.

By contrast, Harris is described solely as Black in only 34 percent of the articles about her. For example, LaTosha Brown, the co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, celebrated the VP pick as “a historic win for Black women, who have long been disenfranchised.”

A larger fraction (60 percent) describe her as both a “Black woman” and an “Asian American,” and the rest describe her as a “woman of color.” For example, in a USA Today article, Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, argued that the selection of Harris “says to Asian Americans that [they] are not just Americans, too, but part of the civic life, with the ability to reach the highest of offices.”

In short, the media tends to describe Harris as the combination of her ethnic identities, in tandem with her gender identity. This was less true for Obama.

Most Americans expect cheating in the November election

Why the difference?

One reason has to do with gender. Prior research suggests that racial boundaries are less malleable for men. For example, one study found that biracial men, and specifically those of Black-White descent, were more likely to be perceived as racial minorities than biracial women.

Moreover, there is a long legacy of biracial people of Black-White descent being categorized as simply “Black.” In the United States, the “one-drop rule” long classified people with any Black ancestry as Black. This rule and its legacy may not apply as neatly to Harris because of her Asian and Black heritage.

Harris may also be different from Obama because of her history as a prosecutor, which has produced questions about Harris’s potential appeal to Black Americans concerned about racial bias in the criminal justice system. This controversy may also make political analysts and reporters less likely to see her only as “Black.”

Why it matters

The importance of how the media covers Harris isn’t so much that it affects how people see her. Recent research shows that it doesn’t.

Rather, news coverage that emphasizes Harris’s multiracial background may help the Democratic Party broaden the set of groups that the party is perceived to represent. For some activists, this means establishing the Democratic Party as the party of marginalized groups. Harris’s nomination thus signals not only a commitment to Black people, much as Obama’s nomination did, but also a commitment to women, Asian Americans and immigrants.

Of course, the Republican Party will not let these Democratic efforts go unanswered. Black Republican candidates and Black conservatives in the popular media seek to challenge the assumption that Black voters will turn out for Democratic candidates. They may not.

However, if Harris’s candidacy tells us anything, it is that the Democratic Party will not give up “the Black vote” — or the vote of other marginalized groups — without a fight.

Don’t miss any of TMC’s smart analysis! Sign up here for our newsletter.

Andrea Pena-Vasquez (@andrea_penav) is a PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame.

Maryann H. Kwakwa, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown University.